Call it perseverance. Or possibly stubbornness. But even through so much roster turmoil, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team would not go away. They stuck together, and despite the doubts and constant changing, won the NCAA Division I championship.
Last season the Cavaliers made it to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Duke. But the drama began before that when defender George Huguely was charged with the murder of Virginia women’s lacrosse player and ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love. This weekend, as his teammates celebrated, Huguely sat in a jail cell waiting for his trial, set for February 6, 2012.
The turnover continued into this season. Star defender Matt Lovejoy underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after playing in just 10 games.
A pair of All-American midfielders—twins Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, considered the best players on the team—were suspended multiple times this season. Rhamel was suspended before the regular season finale and was ruled inactive for every game thereafter.
Shamel was suspended three times this season, the last of which was at the same time as Rhamel’s, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the team. Shamel finished the season fourth on the team in points (despite playing in only 11 games) and Rhamel finished sixth.
Before Virginia beat the University of Pennsylvania in a NCAA tournament tune-up, the team had lost four of its final five games, including getting bounced out of the ACC Tournament in the first round.
Even in the playoffs, things did not get any better. They came from behind and needed overtime to beat first-round opponent Bucknell. The offense took another hit when third-leading scorer Colin Briggs was also suspended for the team’s NCAA semifinal game.
And yet somehow the team made it work.
Having a young defense without Lovejoy, Virginia changed schemes. Notorious for having a pressure-packed man-to-man defense, the Cavaliers converted mid-season to playing mostly a zone defense. In the NCAA Tournament Virginia surrendered double digits in goals only once (to Bucknell).
With the Brattons on the team, the majority of the offense relied on midfield production. When both were gone, the offense morphed and changed to get more production from its attack and work the ball from behind the net. Much like how the defense was successful, the offense scored double digits in all its tournament games except the championship round, when they scored nine.
And who was the hero of the championship game? None other than the previously suspended Briggs. The senior midfielder scored a career-high five goals.
“I definitely disappointed myself and let down the team on Saturday. I wanted to come back today and give everything I had,’’ Briggs told the media after the big win. “I got some open looks and was able to finish some shots.’’
It was very unlikely, all things considered, that Virginia would be hoisting the championship trophy at the end of the season. They were the lowest-seeded team (No. 7) to win the title, and the first to do so with five losses (they finished the season 13-5).
None of that matters, though, because they are, in fact, champions. And they did so by overcoming adversity through teamwork. Instead of whining, the team banded together, adapted to every new situation, bought in to what head coach Dom Starsia taught them and executed.
What Virginia did was a true lesson in taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes and fixing them.